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Westboro Case Strengthens Free Speech Rights For All

It would be nice if protecting free speech always meant defending the right of people to read Ulysses, Lolita or Tom Sawyer. The case that the U.S. Supreme Court took on this week involves much less artful or inspiring words.

In a nearly unanimous decision, the court upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., to picket funerals. The church's small membership believes that almost any death short of old age is God's punishment for the United States' tolerance of gays. They chant, sing and hold up signs that say, "You're going to hell," and other epithets.

Church members appeared near the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards last year and that of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was killed in January's Tucson shootings.

They have also picketed the funerals of fallen soldiers, including the 2006 services for 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., who was killed in Iraq.

Albert Snyder, Cpl. Snyder's father, sued for damages, saying church members had turned his son's funeral into "a circus."

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the 8-1 majority, noted that the protesters were on public grounds a thousand feet away.

"Such speech cannot be restricted," he said, "simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt."

In the lone dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said, "Albert Snyder is not a public figure. He is simply a parent whose son ... was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace."

Albert Snyder reacted to the court decision by telling reporters, "My first thought was eight justices don't have the common sense God gave a goat."

Maybe every generation needs a case to learn that the First Amendment is tested and grows stronger when it defends speech that's unpopular, even reprehensible.

In 1979, American Nazi Party members wanted to march in the streets of Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb in which a number of Holocaust survivors lived. Skokie said such a march would be an assault on people who had already survived Nazi death camps.

The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the march could proceed. But after winning the right to assemble in Skokie, the Nazis decided instead to march through Marquette Park, near their headquarters on the city's southwest side.

That small, squalid group of puffed-up buffoons wearing swastikas and spewing hate had the whatever-it-was — I refuse to say sensitivity or intelligence — not to march where their monstrous message would be most personal.

That's a low standard to meet. But maybe members of the Westboro Baptist Church are up to it.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.